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In The Garden
Friday, August 10, 2001

By Suzanne Tswei

The white hibiscus, the only native Hawaiian variety of the species,
grows on the grounds of the Halawa Xeriscape Garden.

Flouting the

Many native blossoms will
bloom under dry conditions


By suzanne tswei

In the plant world, being pretty and having a sweet fragrance are great advantages. Humans favor these plants and will want to grow them, thus ensuring the survival of the species. The native Hawaiian white hibiscus has one more trick up its sleeve: It is also drought-tolerant.

"People don't think of the native white hibiscus that way. Because it has flowers and it's bushy with a lot of leaves, people think it needs a lot of water to grow. But that's not true," said Amy Tsuneyoshi, propagator at the Halawa Xeriscape Garden.

The blossoms above are, from left: the endangered Koolaula; the
Hawaiian cotton plant, ma'o; a dried ma'o blossom with cotton;
the native alula; and Hawaiian bastard sandalwood, naio.


Address: 99-1268 Iwaena St., Halawa Valley industrial area
Hours: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays
Admission: Free
Call: 527-6113

The native hibiscus, koki'o ke'oke'o, isn't as drought-tolerant as a cactus, but it can flourish with a moderate amount of water, making it an ideal choice for landscaping as gardeners cope with the fourth consecutive year of drought in the islands. Many other native Hawaiian plants also are attractive and do well with little water, but none is as colorful or fragrant as the white hibiscus, Tsuneyoshi said.

"Native Hawaiian plants had to survive on their own with no humans to take care of them at the beginning. They can be tolerant of any condition. Once they are established, they are very low-maintenance," Tsuneyoshi said.

Another drought-tolerant native Hawaiian plant with showy blossoms is the ohi'a, which is prized by lei makers for its tender new leaves and red, orange and yellow blossoms. The misconception is that the ohi'a can thrive only in cool and moist locations; on the contrary, the tree can do well in hot and dry areas, Tsuneyoshi said.

"The ohi'a is tough. It is the third plant to grow after the lava flow; it comes in after the lichen and the mosses," she said.

To become established, the ohi'a needs care and moisture. But once it takes root, the plant can tolerate drought conditions well. Tsuneyoshi recommends selecting ohi'a varieties with fuzzy leaves, which are better adapted for lower and dryer elevations. The fuzzy leaves help the plant conserve water.

The Xeriscape garden features 50 native Hawaiian plants as examples of hardy, drought-tolerant species. Xeriscape, pronounced zir-i-skap, comes from the Greek word xeros, meaning dry, and emphasizes water and energy conservation in landscaping.

The gazebo on the grounds of the Halawa Xeriscape Garden
is surrounded by native and non-native plants.

The 3-acre garden, owned and operated by the Honolulu Board of Water Supply as a water conservation program, also features cactuses, succulents and numerous other drought-tolerant plants.

Visitors may take self-guided tours of the garden on Wednesdays and Saturdays and pick up free native Hawaiian plant seeds and pamphlets on xeriscaping. Some plants also are available for purchase through the Friends of Halawa Xeriscape Garden.

There's no trick to maintaining a thriving garden when water is scarce if you learn to compromise, said Glen Fujiwara, Board of Water Supply landscape architect.

"You kind of have to bite the bullet if you want to conserve water. You can't ask for water conservation in one breath and ask for a big lawn in another. A big lawn takes a lot of water. But you can still have a lawn if you really want one, just a smaller one," Fujiwara said.

He recommends reducing the lawn area and covering the rest of the garden with a mulch made of wood chips or rock. Wood mulch is especially good for areas under trees because it is biodegradable and provides nutrients to the trees. Just be sure to pick up wood mulch from local tree trimmers to help recycle green waste in Hawaii. Store-bought wood mulch comes from California redwood and does not contribute to Hawaii's ecology.

Zoysia, a grass with a fine blade, and Bermuda grass are good for hot and dry areas, he said. To help keep the grass green, aerate the lawn to allow for better water penetration.

Other than choosing drought-tolerant plants, reducing the lawn and adding mulch, Fujiwara recommends changing maintenance habits. Fertilize just once a year. Use a drip irrigation system because spray sprinklers waste water.

Water early in the morning and learn to use less water: Cut down on watering in increments until plants begin to turn yellow or brown. Then increase watering by a small amount -- that's likely the minimum your plants need to survive.

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Suzanne Tswei's gardening column runs Saturdays in Today.
You can write her at the Star-Bulletin,
500 Ala Moana, Suite 7-210, Honolulu, HI, 96813
or email

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